'Turner': A New Broadway Play By Pulitzer Prize-winner Wilson

Posted: March 29, 1988

NEW YORK — August Wilson has returned to Broadway with Joe Turner's Come and Gone, a weaker but more poetic play than Fences, which won him the Pulitzer Prize last year.

The vivid production at the Ethel Barrymore Theater is another in the series of collaborations between the playwright and director Lloyd Richards, artistic head of the Yale Repertory Theater. This extraordinarily creative partnership has brought forth Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Fences, Joe Turner and The Piano Lesson, which has not been seen in New York.

Each play is set in a different era, in line with the writer's intention of presenting black American history through characters and situations representative of the principal social concerns of each period. Joe Turner's Come and Gone takes place in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911, when the massive migration from the South to the North was tearing the fabric of black life in the aftermath of emancipation.

The personification of this upheaval is one Herald Loomis, who comes North with his small daughter in search of the wife he hasn't seen in more than seven years. Loomis has spent that time in peonage to the dread Joe Turner, a white bounty hunter immortalized in a song by W. C. Handy.

Loomis and his daughter take a room in the Pittsburgh boardinghouse of Seth and Bertha Holly, a hard-working, responsible couple. Seth is firm with his boarders; he runs a respectable house, and he will not tolerate bad behavior. As portrayed by Mel Winkler and actress L. Scott Caldwell, the Hollys are likable examples of the settled black class that feels threatened by the alien population of drifters that is abroad in their part of the land.

Herald Loomis is a figure of menace in his black overcoat, floppy black hat and dirty shoes. He has been wrenched from his moorings, and his search for his vanished wife turns into his whole race's quest for selfhood.

Under the sympathetic eye of a resident medicine man, Herald goes through seizures of visionary significance and a violent climax to attain peace of mind. He finds the wife he has sought (Angela Bassett), but she rejects him. He is thrown back on himself, free of all ties, including those that bind him to the white man's God.

In a performance of hair-trigger tension, Delroy Lindo strikes a powerfully charged balance between madness and pathos, dignity and defeat.

August Wilson has a distinctively individual way of writing. His characters never fail to come to life, but they often develop in detours of storytelling and kitchen-table talk. As a young man, he did postgraduate research in the community cigar store, where older men did the talking and the younger one absorbed the oral tradition that has stood him so well as a playwright. He is also a practicing poet, and his sense of metaphor is felt in Joe Turner in Herald Loomis' apocalyptic vision of human bones rising from sea depths in a Judgment Day fantasy.

The play's weakness is in its failure to find a central action through which the drama might develop. The hostility between the boardinghouse-keeper and his dangerous boarder remains a case of stubborn opposition rather than dynamic conflict. The lives of the other boarders also take up more time than is absolutely necessary, although they might be justified not only for their interesting personalities but also as a cross section of a society whose epic progress is the playwright's subject.

Zesty performances are turned in by Ed Hall as the medicine man, Bo Rucker as a good-looking and direct Romeo, and Kimberly Scott as a woman who knows exactly what kind of offer she will accept from a man.

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